Confession: I watch 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom like it’s my job (because it kind of is). I pay careful attention to how teen pregnancy and young parenthood are portrayed in the media, because I think it’s incredibly important how we think about these young women and their families; their portrayals provide insight into how we, as a society, think about teens and sex, relationships, reproductive choice, and public support for families in need.
Two years ago, I had Glee on that list of must-watch shows because Quinn Fabray, perfect-cheerleader-turned-Glee clubber was pregnant. Despite the convoluted conception story and contrived “Who’s the father?” subplot, I actually liked the way Glee handled Quinn’s pregnancy. Her friends at Glee club came together and supported her, and those that rejected Quinn (her own mother, the cheerleaders) were the bad guys. At the end of the season, Quinn placed the baby, Beth, for adoption – without a lot of clear development about why she made that choice – and then no more.
Last season, Quinn wasn’t 16 and pregnant. She was a birthmother. And the adoption was hardly ever mentioned. Quinn walked away from the adoption, didn’t look back, didn’t grieve, didn’t communicate with her daughter’s adoptive mother. Instead, she recreated her former golden-ponytailed self with Cheerio tenacity. To be frank, I stopped watching the show for a while because I was so frustrated they’d turned Quinn into a Juno.
That’s right, a Juno. In my analyses of how birthmothers (and sometimes birthfathers) are portrayed, I’ve come up with four clichéd, awful stereotypes, which are not mutually exclusive.
1. The Juno, brought to you by the blockbuster movie that shaped a generation’s opinion of birthmothers as people who make an adoption plan, walk away, don’t look back, and conclude “I think he was always hers.” While there are some women who might choose closed adoption and move on quickly with their lives, I’ve spoken with a lot of birthmothers, and I’ve never found them. (This doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I’m sure they do. But I think they are a minority.) In fact, the walk-away-and-forget myth is a dangerous one for women that was used to justify coerced adoptions during the Baby Scoop era before Roe v. Wade.
2. The Crackwhore, brought to you by American conservatives. Most usually, the crackwhore (and I cringe to write that word, believe me) stereotype is used not in voluntary adoption placements, but in instances where social services intervene and place children in foster care or public adoptions. Despite this difference, the stereotype is used to portray birthmothers as epitome of the bad mother, incapable of caring for and wholly unworthy of raising her children.
3. The Birthmartyr, brought to you by Dr. Drew and the folks at 16 and Pregnant. When Dr. Drew says the young women who choose adoption are “so incredibly mature” and “selfless” and turns to the birthmother dealing with post-adoption grief and tells her to “move on for the good of her child”, that’s the birthmartyr trope in action. On 16 and Pregnant, the young women who chose adoption are self-sacrificing heroes, while the young women who chose to parent are (according to Dr. Drew) immature and poor decision-makers.
4. The Baby Stealer, brought to you by Loosing Isaiah and every adoptive parent’s worst nightmare. As open adoption (where birth and adoptive families have ongoing post-adoption contact) becomes more and more common and society continues to not understand that relationship, the continuing presence of the birthparent is seen as a threat – either metaphorical or literal – to the bond between adoptive parent and child. Indeed, open adoption should (and often does) foster a relationship of mutual trust and respect between all the child’s parents that alleviates any such worries, yet we still represent birthparents as constantly scheming to regain custody of their child.
On last night’s episode, Shelby, Quinn’s daughter’s adoptive mother returns and invites Quinn and Puck (the baby’s father) into Beth’s life. Early in the episode, I was pleased: Open adoption! An adoptive parent recognizing that contact with birthparents will benefit her daughter in the long run! But things were messier than that, as they usually are in adoption.
Did Quinn and Puck want contact? Because actual adoption was glossed over so quickly, it’s hard to know what the terms of their agreement were. In my research, I’ve found that most birthparents do want contact, but they also deserve some degree of control of that contact. Being blindsided by an adoptive mother showing up at their school, expecting them to be grateful for a brief glimpse of an iPhone photo, does not represent a mutually respectful arrangement. Furthermore, for most birthparents, the first few years after the adoption are often the hardest. Perhaps they needed time to process their decision more before contact was made.
Does Shelby have the right to put stipulations on Quinn and Puck’s contact with Beth? Yes, she does. She is Beth’s adoptive mother, and she has an obligation to protect that child. If Quinn represented a threat, or even a very bad influence, perhaps Shelby would be justified in setting limits, but she seems to be rejecting Quinn because she has pink instead of blonde hair and a snazzy fake nose ring. If, as an adoptive parent, you want your child’s birthparents involved in their life (and research shows you probably should, to some extent), you need to accept them as a complex person with flaws and phases, as someone who is living a life different than your own. And you need to be accepting of a young high school girl acting out by dying her hair and wearing grunge clothing – especially when, as Shelby (and all the other characters) did, you believe the behavior changes are, for the time being, her way of processing the adoption.
Of course, by the end of the episode, we realize that Quinn isn’t a Juno. She’s a baby stealer. She tells Puck, “I have to get her back… We’re gonna get full custody.” Not only is this a legal impossibility, Glee has swapped one damaging stereotype for another.
Most people don’t know (or don’t know that they know) any birthparents, so they really rely on these TV and movie representations to help understand who places children for adoption. If we don’t actually know what birthparents look like, we don’t really know what adoption looks like and don’t really understand it as the complex, loving, messy, sad, and beautiful lifelong process that it is truly is.
And if we don’t understand adoption, we can’t protect it as an important reproductive choice that all women should have access to, without judgment, without stereotype, and with a clear understanding of the long-term commitment and consequences involved.